American astronaut Peggy Whitson has set a new spacewalking record for #Women in space. On March 30, Whitson spent 7 hours and 4 minutes in space, breaking the record for the total spacewalking time for women in space. This was Whitson’s second spacewalk in seven days and the eighth spacewalk of her career. The previous record was held by another NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, who had a cumulative 50 hours and 40 minutes spacewalk time in her name. Whitson, 57, now holds the new record with a total of 53 hours and 22 minutes.

Peggy Whitson is the oldest woman in space

Peggy also holds the record for being the oldest woman ever to perform a spacewalk.

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She became the oldest woman in space last year when she arrived at International Space Station (ISS) in November. A Russian Soyuz rocket that carried Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and French astronaut Thomas Pesquet blasted off from Kazakhstan and docked at ISS two days later. The previous record of the oldest woman in space was held by Barbara Morgan in 2007, who was 55 at the time. Next month, Whitson will become the commander of Expedition 51, making her the first woman astronaut to command the space station twice.

Peggy Whitson celebrated her 57th birthday in February this year. This is the third ISS mission for the Iowa-born biochemist, who first went to ISS in 2002. She completed her second ISS mission in 2007. During her second mission, Whitson became the first woman to command the ISS—the science laboratory that orbits around 400 km above Earth's surface.

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Risks associated with spacewalking activity

Spacewalks make a routine activity of crew's roster at ISS, although there are huge risks associated with this human activity in space. During a spacewalk, astronauts have to spend hours in space. They have no access to a bathroom at that time and also face the risk of being #Lost In Space in case their tether fails. In one weird incident, a mixture of soap and oil solution got in the left eye of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield when he was performing a spacewalk. Astronauts use the soap and oil mixture to keep their visors fog-free, but that solution made Hadfield temporarily blinded at such a crucial juncture. Thankfully, astronauts are trained to stay calm in such situations, and Hadfield managed to get back to the space station without any harm.

Whitson, during her record-breaking spacewalk stint on March 30, was accompanied by fellow NASA astronaut and mission commander Shane Kimbrough. Both astronauts had been assigned a crucial upgrading task of reconnecting the 'parking dock' of the ISS that had been moved earlier in the week.

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This parking dock, dubbed pressurized mating adapter-3 (PMA-3), provides a pressurized interface between the space station and a docking adaptor. The work completed by astronauts on March 30 had actually started on March 24 when Kimbrough disconnected cables and electrical connections on the PMA-3, and then robotic arms of ISS moved PMA-3 two days later.

Setback during the spacewalk

Despite a successful completion of the task, things didn't go as per plan as some equipment were lost accidently in the space. After Kimbrough installed a new external computer, he and Whitson met at the airlock to retrieve two pairs of axial shields that provide protection from micrometeoroids. One shield accidentally slipped away before spacewalkers could strap it down. This shield was lost in space.

"The plan worked, and the cover was successfully installed, providing thermal protection and micrometeoroid and orbital debris cover for the port," a NASA blog entry stated.

Despite the setback, Kimbrough and Whitson completed all the assigned tasks. They even got some time to take some pictures of common berthing mechanism at Harmony module (Node 2) where PMA-3 now resides.

The extravehicular activity performed on 30th March was the 199th in ISS history, the eighth for Whitson, the sixth for Kimbrough and fourth so far in 2017.